Chapter Eight

Morgana rose at first light and made a surprising and welcome trip to the baths behind the principium, following a covered portico from the rear of the great headquarters building which was her stepbrother’s command center. The bath was a somewhat lopsided structure, clearly having been enlarged at some later point, as the right half was built of stone and masonry that did not match the left half.

Aye, Morgana smiled at Brenna’s puzzlement, they say when the first Christian priests came to Caerleul—the Romans were still here, then, and called it Luguvalium in those days—they were scandalized by the low morals of the men and women who used the same bathhouse. Not together, but the temptation was there, so the commander of the fortress had his engineers build a second bath adjoining the first, for the wives and daughters of the officers stationed in the fortress.

Given the amount of railing twenty-first-century priests did against lax morals, Brenna was not surprised in the least. When they stepped up into the bathhouse, the floor of which was at least eighteen inches higher than the ground, Brenna gasped in surprise. Frescoes of garden scenes decorated the walls, with fruit trees and flowers, fountains and birds, even butterflies recognizable as English Vanessas. A beautiful mosaic of sea life covered the floor, with dolphins playing and leaping above the waves, scattering turquoise and aquamarine droplets into the tiled sunlight, while fish glimmered in shades of blues and greens and silvers. Light splashed down into the chamber from a high, round window, glassed in to keep the heat from escaping.

“It’s beautiful,” Brenna murmured aloud, since no other bathers had gathered, yet. “I’d not realized how beautiful such places could be.” Or that anything in the sixth century would be so finely wrought and carefully maintained. She’d envisioned Arthurian England as a realm of endless crudity and was startled everywhere she went by the overwhelming evidence of beautifully civilized culture.

Yes, it is lovely, isn’t it? Morgana agreed, tactfully not commenting on Brenna’s unflattering illusions as she used a dipper at a small, separate basin to wet her skin. She soaped herself with a yellowish and slightly greasy cake of soap that must have been extremely high in fat and lye, given its texture, then rinsed the soap off into a drain in the floor before sinking into the deep, rectangular pool of the calderium, an Olympian-sized hot tub with a marble bench submerged around the outer edge for sitting on while soaking. Ahh… We had nothing so fine at Ynys Manaw when I was growing up, as the Romans never troubled themselves with the island. It was better for Ynys Manaw that way, for we kept our independence and our ways intact, but the luxuries they brought would have been lovely to enjoy, when I was still a girl. We traded for a few things, but not even the kings of Ynys Manaw would hire the engineers and artisans this required—she gestured at the walls, the floor—not without risking the Romans taking over the whole island, once invited in. That was Vortigern’s great folly with the Saxons.

That particular folly, the Britons were still paying for, in blood.

Morgana’s worry about the Pictish and Irish troubles, as well as the Saxon ones, led Brenna to commit an error she wanted to snatch back, instantly. When Morgana brooded, We must devote so much of our strength to defending our western coast from the Irish, I fear we will not have enough strength to meet the Saxons in the south, Brenna couldn’t help the thought that came arrowing out: You know, if we could persuade the Irish kings that the Saxons are a danger to them, persuade them to alliance with Britain, we wouldn’t have to guard that coast at all.

Morgana, deeply startled, sat up straight, sending the hot water sloshing over her breasts. A most intriguing notion, Brenna of Ireland.

Oh, Lord, Brenna wailed silently, what’ve I done? She couldn’t help it, though. If the Irish and Britons had managed to ally themselves against the Saxons and Angles and Jutes, not only would the invaders have found Britain a tougher nut to crack, the Anglo-Saxon kings and their English descendants wouldn’t have existed to invade Ireland several hundred years later—and Brenna found the idea of saving hundreds of thousands of lives by eliminating the centuries-old war between Ireland and England very attractive. Too attractive, in fact. The desire to meddle, to try and save those hundreds of thousands of innocents—to save an entire culture—was a temptation that Christ himself would have found difficult to resist. That war, perpetuated in the conflicts of Northern Ireland, had damaged Brenna’s life deeply, had led her to the mess she was currently in, trapped in the sixth century, trying to stop an Anglo-Saxon Orange terrorist. But if she acted to save those lives, she would be no better than Cedric Banning, putting the lives of billions at risk to save a few hundred thousand. It was a bitter situation, worthy of Irish history, that to act would destroy as surely as not acting.

Unfortunately, she had already done the damage, putting the notion into Morgana’s mind.

I must consider this notion carefully, Brenna of the Irish. Very carefully.

There being nothing Brenna could do to stop her, and finding it utterly impossible to explain the danger inherent in trying to alter what would be Brenna’s past and Morgana’s future, she subsided unhappily and tried to recapture her enjoyment of the Roman bath. Morgana, however, atwitch with interest and restless to be dressed and waiting before Cutha arrived, stepped out of the bath, drying herself in a large linen bath sheet as other women arrived to bathe and ready themselves for the Saxons’ visit. A few minutes later, gowned and jeweled, Morgana set out in search of her nephew.

It took her several minutes to locate Medraut, whom she expected to find haunting the street outside the royal villa of Strathclyde, which stood at a remove of several yards outside the fortress walls. A veritable horde of boys his age, sons of cataphracti officers and wheelwrights and stable boys, were waiting for first sight of Cutha’s arrival, creating a colorful uproar in the village street. Medraut was not, however, anywhere in that street, nor was he inside the villa. A search of the command headquarters back inside the fortress walls also failed to yield him up.

She finally stepped out the back exit of the principium, where the portico led to the baths, and found him at last. Deep in conversation with Ganhumara, who clung to Medraut like a lover, clearly having met him on her way into the bathhouse. Icy rage blasted through Morgana, directed not so much at the lovesick boy as at Ganhumara. The girl used men for her own selfish purposes and discarded them when it suited her, a pattern Morgana had watched with narrow disapproval for several years, even prior to Ganhumara’s marriage to Artorius.

“Medraut!”

They broke apart, startled and guilty at being caught. Ganhumara sent a look of utter venom at Morgana while Medraut’s face alternately flushed and washed icy pale.

“Aunt?”

“Your place is in the royal villa, nephew, not trysting with”—she ran a wintry glance over Ganhumara—”other men’s wives. You disappoint me severely. Go and prepare for Cutha’s arrival at once.”

He paused, torn between obedience and the desire to say a proper good-bye to Ganhumara. Morgana spat coldly, “Now, Medraut! Or would you prefer to tarry while Saxons butcher the whole of Britain?”

He bolted, visibly stricken. Morgana rounded on Artorius’ young wife.

“Your manners and your morals are contemptible! Were your father alive, he would shorten your hair and disown you as a common slattern. Stay away from my nephew, Ganhumara. Seek for your royal heir elsewhere or know my full wrath.”

Ganhumara’s face washed white with shock. Not the shock of insult, but astonishment that her ploys had not only been correctly interpreted, they had been flung back into her face. Morgana left her gaping, with her fidelity and reputation in tatters, to wonder when the axe would fall on her neck in the form of full disclosure to Artorius. Morgana had no intention of handing her stepbrother such news, not now and perhaps not ever. She loved Artorius far too deeply to wound him with such tidings, particularly on the eve of war. Steps would have to be taken immediately to remove Medraut from further contact with Ganhumara and her wiles, else he would make a fool of himself and plunge them all into civil war with Artorius. The most logical course would be to marry the boy off at once, to a princess of royal blood as far from Ganhumara as could be arranged.

And without a kingdom to offer such a bride, not even a younger daughter with older sisters in line to marry kings would consent to marry the son of a woman executed as a poisoner, with no hope of ruling a kingdom of his own. Not while Morgana’s younger son stood in line to inherit Galwyddel and Ynys Manaw, just as her elder son would inherit Gododdin. The only answer she could see to that was to give Medraut a portion of Galwyddel or Ynys Manaw and name him king. This was, of course, well within her rights as sovereign queen, a solution other Briton monarchs resorted to with fair frequency, to stop brothers and cousins from feuding.

Unfortunately, to give Medraut a kingship, even a small one, would make him doubly attractive to Ganhumara, who wanted an heir with royal blood in its veins, which Artorius could not provide. Cousin to kings and stepbrother to queens, he was not, himself, of royal descent—a fact Ganhumara had resented from the moment her father had announced the betrothal two years previously. Morgana suspected that poor King Carmelide, beset by seas of difficulties, had married the vixen off at fourteen simply to stop her from ruining both their good names with her skirt-flipping, hot-blooded passions.

That girl was a disaster poised to strike like the headsman’s axe.

“Queen Morgana?”

The voice startled her from the shadows of a room just off the corridor which led from the baths back toward the main hall. A man she vaguely recognized as one of the minstrels stepped forward, hat literally in hand as he approached.

“Yes?” she asked, brows furrowed slightly at the interruption.

“I’m that sorry, I am, to have overheard you just now, but I’m thinking I might be able to help.”

Morgana’s blood ran cold. “And just how might you do that?”

He twisted his Phrygian cap and said softly, “Well, ’tis obvious young Medraut must marry, and soon, to prevent trouble breaking out. I’m thinking it would solve two problems, to seek a marriage of alliance to the north.”

Morgana frowned. “Strathclyde? Clinoch has sisters, yes. All younger than he and not yet of age to marry.”

The minstrel shook his head. “You mistake my meaning, Queen Morgana. It was farther north, I had in mind. A princess of Dalriada would give us the alliance we must have to secure our northern border while we deal with the Saxons in the south. And marriage alliance with the Irish Scotti clan would be of such political significance, Medraut would think several times before risking war by trysting with Artorius’ wife.”

Morgana narrowed her eyes while Brenna held her breath. It was a disturbingly attractive solution, one Brenna did not dare influence; she’d done enough damage already, priming the pump that would doubtless make Morgana far more receptive to the minstrel’s idea. “And what would you expect by way of reward, minstrel?”

A fleeting smile touched the man’s lips. “You need not buy my silence, Queen Morgana, for I have the interest of the Britons at heart. But a man must eat and a queen must have minstrels for her court. I am weary of walking from Strathclyde to Cerniw and back again, playing at every tavern along the way to earn my bread. I have spent this week with the royal minstrels of Rheged and I think they have found no fault with my performances, if you worry on that account. I’ll not disgrace your court.”

Something about the glitter of the man’s eyes sent a chill of warning down Brenna’s spine, but Morgana understood only too well that this man’s silence would have to be assured. If he remained satisfied with an appointment as royal minstrel of Galwyddel, that was well and good. If not… Morgana was not averse to acting decisively for the protection of Briton interests. Galwyddel possessed many a cliff from which a traitor could be hurled. “You propose to act as go-between?”

The man bowed. “Of course. Who else could travel to Dalriada without raising suspicion? A minstrel is always welcome and comes and goes as he pleases without provoking comment.”

“Your name, minstrel?”

“Lailoken, Queen Morgana.”

“You will have to put your memory to the test, for I will commit nothing to writing.”

Again, he bowed. “Your wisdom is well known.”

“Meet me, then, after Cutha’s arrival. I will wait for you on the road to Caer-Gretna, half-an-hour’s ride by horse beyond the walls of Caerleul, as soon as we have dealt with Cutha and summoned the kings of Britain to council. I’ll have no witnesses to any such discussion.”

Lailoken’s eyes glittered. “Your pleasure is my command.” The minstrel turned and strode away, exiting the corridor past the baths and disappearing around the corner.

Brenna warned silently, Trust that one at your peril.

Morgana replied, ‘Tis greater peril not to make use of him. Trust, however, will never enter the bargain. Of that, you may be sure.

The queen of Galwyddel turned in search of her royal nephew. Morgana found him in his room this time, pulling on his boots, having already donned his best tunic and trousers. He tried to stammer out an apology, face and throat scarlet as he waited for further reprimand. Morgana reminded herself that he was very young and infatuated with a viper who presented herself as sweetness itself. She closed the door behind her, giving them complete privacy.

“As to your affair with Ganhumara,” Morgana began quietly, “allow me to give you a word or two of warning. She covets an heir and scorns Artorius’ common blood to give it to her. She has never forgiven her father for marrying her to the illegitimate son of a Sarmatian war leader and will not stop until she finds a fool credulous and smitten enough to give her an heir with royal blood in its veins—and you, Medraut, are a grandson of kings. If you show the common sense of which I know you to be capable, you may well rule as a king in your own right, far sooner than you might guess.”

His eyes widened. “What do you mean?”

“Liaison with Ganhumara can bring you nothing but shame, disgrace, and outlawry, if your indiscretion or her adultery are discovered. I have in mind a far more advantageous union which would benefit you immediately and benefit all of Britain in the long run.”

“What sort of union?” he asked curiously as the shame and high color in his face began to fade. “There’s not a princess of blood royal anywhere in Britain who would have the son of a condemned murderess with no land to offer.” The bitterness in his voice was sadly understandable, as was the flare of stubborn pride.

“Perhaps not in Britain, but there are other shores, Medraut, and other alliances.”

“Brittany?” He frowned. “The Celts of mainland Gaul would draw a branding iron down their daughters’ cheeks before consenting to marry them off to a creature like me.”

“No, Medraut, I do not speak of Brittany.”

His brows drew even lower in confusion. “What then?”

“Aside from the Saxons, where lies our greatest danger?”

“The Picts.”

“Ah, you see the immediate danger, yes, but not the root cause. The Picts have become a deadly threat only because they are forced south from their own lands.”

His eyes widened. “The Irish? Of Dalriada?”

“Indeed. And the enemy of my enemy is a potential friend. A potentially powerful friend. We must find a way to convince this enemy that the Saxons are as great a threat to Eire and Dalriada as they are to Britain. A people looking to expand their borders are generally far happier to marry into a throne and colonize peaceably than to risk their sons’ lives in war to drive a native population out. And if they are not happier to begin with, they often can be persuaded to see the advantage of gentler intermarriage, particularly when both groups have much to offer as concerns the safety of the other.”

“Do you really think you can persuade the Irish to assist Britain without treachery such as the Saxon foederati used?”

“I do not speak of hiring mercenaries, Medraut. I speak of alliance through the marriage bed.”

“But—”

“You will have a great deal more to offer a Dalriadan princess than you now imagine.”

His eyes widened once more. “You’ll give me a piece of land?”

“More than a piece, should this alliance work out. I have one son to inherit Gododdin and one to inherit Ynys Manaw. What I do with Galwyddel is my own affair.”

Her nephew gasped. “Galwyddel? All of it?”

“Most of it, I should think.”

He sat down hard on the edge of his bed. “Oh! Aunt, I—I hardly know what to say!”

She laid a finger across his lips. “Say nothing, nephew. I should not have to warn you about the need for discretion in such a proposed alliance.”

He shook his head, then nodded vigorously. “I understand, yes.”

“Good.” She placed a kiss against his brow. “I have had so little time, Medraut, to attend to your needs and education as I ought. Marguase’s crimes were none of your doing, but I fear you have been desperately hurt by them and I forget, sometimes, to tell you that you are much honored and beloved.”

Tears sprang to his eyes and he turned his glance swiftly away to hide them. He groped with one hand and squeezed hers, able to make no other reply.

“I will see you, then, in the royal villa, when Cutha arrives at Caerleul.”

* * *

Covianna Nim was still concealed in the shadows of her room, whose door she had just begun to open, when Medraut burst into view and slammed open the door to his own room, clearly in a state of extreme agitation. He was deeply aroused, flushed and erect beneath trousers and tunic, and desperately unhappy in his agitated state. Her curiosity piqued, Covianna started to step into the corridor only to melt back into the shadows when Morgana swept into view, in a state of cold-eyed anger. The queen of Galwyddel and Ynys Manaw, stepsister to a far better woman whose destruction Morgana had helped bring about, thrust open Medraut’s door and closed it again behind her. For the first moment or two, she could hear Morgana’s voice, too low to understand the words, then the voices in Medraut’s room went even quieter. Deeply intrigued, now, Covianna waited patiently, hardly daring to hope that she had finally been presented with a way to strike back at Morgana and the stepbrother who had murdered Medraut’s mother—a mistress of dark arts who had trained Covianna for a time at Glastenning Tor, a relationship Covianna was quite certain neither Morgana nor Artorius knew about and one she had been extremely careful to keep secret.

For years, Covianna had bided her time, had made Artorius a “wondrous” sword of Damascus steel that she herself had pounded on the anvil, after wheedling from Emrys Myrddin every tale he could recall of the fine Damascus blades produced by the smiths of far Constantinople. Her lips twitched in amusement as she recalled Myrddin’s fond tales, whispered in the glistening aftermath of some of the finest lovemaking Covianna had ever enjoyed.

“They twist the soft and hard irons together,” he had murmured, trailing fingertips across her breasts. “Fold them time and again, eight, sixteen folds per blade, but the finest smiths swore while deeply in their cups that the only proper way to temper such a blade was to lift it smoking and white from the forge and plunge it into the belly of a drunken slave.”

“Barbaric,” she had murmured, planning to put the notion to the test at the first possible opportunity. And she had done so, testing the procedure first on a sow tied to the anvil, then on a captive doe, a goat, every animal she could think to try it on, and with decent but far from satisfactory results. Determined to win the secret of Damascus for the smiths of her hereditary clan, she had procured a criminal at great difficulty and forged a blade in his belly, gagging him carefully beforehand to still the screams. Better results, but not the perfection she sought.

Then Myrddin’s exact words had come back to her: the belly of a drunken slave.

Lips twitching with satanic delight, she had ridden out from Glastenning Tor to arrange an assignation with one of the princes of Dumnonia, a foolish and drunken young sot who would be entirely amenable to accompanying her in a bout of alcoholic and sexual revelry. That he was a cousin of Artorius only made the seduction all the more delightful. She lured him to Glastenning Tor, to her own private forge deep in the labyrinthine caves beneath the great hill, where water rushed through underground rivers, welling up as the sacred springs of the Tor, blood-red with iron in one place, white as milk from chalk deposits in another.

She seduced him with her body, with endless flasks of wine and sultry laughter, led him down into the caverns to show him a secret he would never forget, and allowed him to watch while she forged her greatest Damascus sword blade yet, smiled above the pounding of hammer against folded steel as he drank and exclaimed and drank some more, filling his belly full of liquid.

And then she plunged the sword into it and the young fool died with a terrible scream and a hiss of steam erupting from the wound. She laughed as he died, his blood pouring across Covianna’s hands, then she tested the blade and found it perfect, a blade that sang in her hands and bit deeply to dismember the fool who had helped her forge it. The pieces of Artorius’ young cousin she dropped down a sinkhole to vanish into the roaring water which boiled past beneath the stone, smiling as she did so.

This sword, she would gift to Artorius and laugh each time he praised it. One more gift did Covianna offer her great enemy: a scabbard of silver and precious wood imported from the shores of Africa, carefully lined with sheep’s wool left in the grease to oil the blade and treated most carefully, indeed, with a concoction boiled down from the sap of the Druid’s plant, mistletoe. After it had sat in the sheath for a few hours, she nicked a goat with the blade. It bled to death despite her considerable effort to stanch the wound.

Ten years it had been since she had gifted that blade to Artorius, and eleven battles had he won with it, eleven battles for which she had made very certain to renew the “magical” properties of sword and sheath—”for luck,” as she laughingly assured him. The great Artorius, against whom no one could stand in battle, the magnificent Caliburn shining in the sunlight like living flame as he cut down foes who could not stand against the sword’s power… And all that “magic” was nothing more than the boiled sap of a common plant found on nearly any oak tree in Britain. She planned, one day, to reveal the secret to Artorius, at the worst possible moment for his inconvenience and comeuppance. Preferably as he lay dying at her feet.

Until that time came, she would simply have to content herself with stirring up trouble within his family. No one had ever guessed the fate of the poor princeling of Dumnonia, whose kin mourned him and puzzled over his mysterious disappearance. And now, it appeared that young Medraut and Morgana were about to hand her another golden opportunity at revenge. She waited patiently until Morgana swept from the room, then slipped across the corridor, tapped at the door, and stepped quickly inside.

Medraut started violently on seeing her, mouth working to try and form some coherent greeting while his face washed scarlet and his hands trembled.

“Have I come at a bad time?” Covianna purred, gliding across the room to rest a hand against his heart. It was pounding with some violent emotion, terror most likely.

The boy stammered and swallowed hard. “W-what did you want?”

“Poor lad, they treat you contemptibly.” She smoothed back his ruffled hair and smiled up into his eyes. “How you remind me of your mother.”

His eyes widened. “You knew my mother?”

Covianna laughed softly. “Oh, yes. Marguase was instrumental in my education. Did they never tell you, she taught healing at Glastenning Tor?”

He stared in open astonishment. Clearly, they had not.

“Not officially, of course,” Covianna smiled, toying with Medraut’s fine tunic and the muscle beneath it, “but Marguase learned the art from the Nine Ladies of Ynys Manaw, and when she came to Glastenning Tor as pupil, she took me under her wing for private tutelage.”

Medraut seemed incapable of speaking. A terrible, burning look of longing had come into his eyes, a hunger for some snippet of news about his mother, whom he scarcely remembered, having been so young at her death.

“Sit with me, Medraut,” she urged, drawing him to the bed and urging him to sit beside her. “Your mother was a beautiful, brilliant woman, a lady of much education and ambition. The others were always jealous of her achievements—so jealous, they began accusing her falsely.”

A jolt ran through the boy, shocked surprise and a wounded look that amused her.

“Oh, yes,” Covianna purred, “even then, there were false accusations about black arts and satanic rites. You must be wary of what others tell you, others who stood to gain by her disgrace and death.”

Medraut shot an involuntary look toward the door. “You can’t mean…”

“Morgana?” she said gently. “I do not accuse her, no. But Marguase was firstborn and half sister to Artorius, who preferred Morgana to her stepsister. Marguase knew her own mind even as a young girl and often was at odds with her half brother. Perhaps your mother was not, after all, suited so well to governance as Morgana. Whatever the truth of Artorius’ preferences, you must realize, of course, that to Artorius, the security of Britain is an all-consuming passion. When the accusations of poisonings and black arts began in earnest, it certainly suited the Dux Bellorum to remove her and place Morgana on the throne of Ynys Manaw and Galwyddel.”

Desperate hurt and confusion had swamped the boy’s eyes. “Artorius has always been kind to me,” he protested weakly.

“And why should he be anything else? He does, after all, carry the guilt of having persuaded your grandfather to execute his own child.”

Medraut bit his lip. “It’s true, then, that Marguase was the child of Igraine and Gorlois? I have sometimes wondered if perhaps Uthyr Pendragon had sired her, as well as Artorius.”

“No, she was Gorlois’ true heiress. It broke your grandfather’s heart to order her bound to the rocks and drowned by the tide. He died soon after, in the fighting when the Irish tried to invade Ynys Manaw, leaving the throne to Morgana. Poor Igraine was dead already, of course, had thrown herself into the sea in her shame at giving birth to Artorius, got on her by ravishment at Uthyr’s hands. Morgana was daughter of Gorlois’ second marriage, greatly favored by your grandfather in his dotage. As Artorius’ stepsister—not half sister, as was your mother—Artorius was free to, shall we say, deepen his friendship with Morgana? Theirs is a close relationship, very close.”

The doubt in the boy’s eyes was delicious. Doubt and a growing, subtle fear of incestuous feelings for a man and woman who were, after all, not blood kin at all, but whose “deep friendship” would certainly have brought both their reputations down in ruins had Covianna been able to prove anything. Covianna had all but given up hope, but Medraut’s current vulnerability presented tantalizing possibilities to explore.

Medraut sat frowning for long moments. “What are you trying to tell me, Covianna? I can’t see that any of this changes my situation. My grandfather disinherited my mother, leaving the throne legally to Morgana, not to me. He had that right.”

“Yes, perhaps he did,” she said softly, reaching down to stroke his hand gently, a gesture which sent a shiver through him and an unmistakable surge through his loins. It was not difficult to guess what had caused his initial arousal and Morgana’s ire. The looks between Medraut and Ganhumara had not been lost on her. His passions had been whetted and Morgana had clearly interrupted, leaving him unfulfilled and vulnerable. A situation she could make delightful use of, to be sure. “Yes, perhaps he had the right to disinherit Marguase and, thereby, you as well. But it is a pity, all the same. You have the makings of a fine king, lad.”

The look he gave her burned with confusion.

She smiled up into his eyes, then leaned forward and kissed him, gently at first, trailing fingertips across his groin, then with more urgency as he hardened under her hand. The union was fast and furious, as she had fully expected, and cataclysmic for the boy, who apparently was still a virgin, given his awkward fumbling under her skirts and inexperienced thrusts, not to mention the swiftness of denouement. She bit his ear and dug her nails into his back, disappointed in the extreme but feigning excitement as he pumped away. “Ah, such a king you would make,” she breathed into his ear. “Such a fine and virile king. You deserve no less.”

“Perhaps,” he gasped, “perhaps I will… and sooner than you guess.”

She unfastened her bodice, drew his mouth down to her breast, reaching down to slow his frantic pace, then murmured between nibbling bites to his neck, “How so?”

“My aunt… she’s… she’s promised me Galwyddel… if I do her bidding. Unngh…”

The shaking began. Desperate to keep him talking, Covianna tightened down and hissed out, as though lost in the throes herself, “Dear God, lad, how shall this be?”

“D-Dal-Dalriada… alliance… God, oh, Christ…” He shuddered deeply, spending himself into her and collapsing on top, panting and trembling violently.

Covianna exulted, petting him and making him quiver until he slid out and off. She kissed him deeply and hard, bringing him to swift arousal again in order to exhaust him, so that he would be less likely to blurt out his indiscretion, later, in divulging Morgana’s plans, then rode him to another frantic release. After which, he collapsed utterly, all but asleep. She left him lying in the ruin of his clothing, trousers disarranged around his knees, not even having bothered to remove them. Covianna pulled her bodice closed, flicked her skirts to order, and murmured, “Come south to Glastenning Tor as soon as you are able, Medraut. I have much, indeed, to teach you, before you wed your Irish princess.”

She smiled all the way back to her room, where she retrieved a small packet from her satchel of medicines and brewed herself a cup of tea from the contents, ensuring that any seed Medraut had planted would not germinate in her womb. She had far more important fish to catch than the spewing of a milk-brat who would never be king of anything. Not after Artorius learned of the proposed treason he and his aunt had concocted between them.

During the next week, when the kings of all Britain would be summoned to High Council, to discuss the threat of Saxons in the south, Covianna would have ample time and opportunity to bring her plans to delightful fruition. And to renew her liaison with Emrys Myrddin, as well, who was a far more skillful lover than that little idiot Medraut could ever hope to be, and capable of bringing her even more of what she wanted most from life. She cleansed herself from her basin and laughed all the way to the royal villa of the kings of Rheged, just beyond the fortress walls, to wait for Cutha and his Saxon dogs.

* * *

Morning came too soon for Trevor Stirling.

With it came the Saxons.

Much to his surprise, Stirling met them in a sprawling villa situated just outside the fortress walls. He had been shaken awake well before first light by the manservant who had followed him all the way from Caer-Iudeu, serving as combination valet and batman. Stirling gulped down a steaming breakfast of oatmeal sweetened with honey and donned the finest clothing his servant had brought from Gododdin, heavily embroidered layered tunics of crimson and royal blue wool, soft leather trousers as supple as velvet, dyed a deep, pine green, and a hip-length black cloak trimmed with dazzling white ermine fur and held closed with an immense penannular cloak pin of heavy gold that must have weighed a quarter of a pound. He shoved his feet into thick leather boots, strapping them around the leather trousers, raked back damp hair, and pronounced himself as ready as he would ever be.

Outside, Ancelotis’ horse waited patiently, chewing at the bit and blowing steam in the chill air of morning. The sun had not yet cleared the horizon when Stirling laid his reins along the big grey stallion’s neck, turning him with a touch, and jogged through the fortress’ wide streets with a rattle of hooves on paving stones. He noted with approval the heavy guard mounted along walls and watchtowers. In the daylight, the immense fortress was even more impressive than it had been in total darkness. Red sandstone walls stood impenetrably thick, immune to virtually anything but artillery fire—and Europeans wouldn’t discover the secrets of gunpowder for several more centuries. As Ancelotis clattered through the snaking turns of the fortress’ main gates, Stirling stared in rapt fascination at the sixth-century town which spread out in every direction.

Seabirds drifted high above, crying their raucous and mournful loneliness to the wide horizons, while sunlight flashed in tones of pink and honey on the undersides of white wings and high grey clouds. The waters of Solway Firth glinted in the distance, where the tip of the bay narrowed down into a thin finger of water. That fingertip curved inland toward Carlisle like a giant, hooked claw, raking deep into the coastline’s flank. Hadrian’s Wall marched steadily westward out of town, paralleling that long claw of water for several miles, before finally dead-ending at the Atlantic Coast. A tall aqueduct completely unknown in the twenty-first century carried water to the fortress, while feeder lines supplied the whole town.

Despite the early hour, the town was already awake. Caerleul’s inhabitants filled the morning with the ringing slam of blacksmiths’ hammers on iron, the scrape of saws and rasps on wood, the deep lowing of cattle and the sharper protest of sheep and chickens being driven to market. Fresh-baked bread sent tendrils of deliciousness through the muddy lanes, while merchants threw back shutters on their shop windows. Stirling couldn’t help staring at glass panes set into several shop-window frames, a sight that shocked him speechless.

He knew, of course, that the Romans had used glass extensively and that glazed windows had not been all that uncommon. Shards of glass from wide windows overlooking the sea had been discovered during excavations of Herculaneum’s public baths, he remembered reading an article about that, but somehow Stirling hadn’t expected to find glass windows in a shopkeeper’s storefront at the extreme edge of Rome’s one-time empire, a full century after the Roman pull-out from Britain. The merchants eyed him hopefully as he passed, calling their wares to any and all interested customers.

Stirling’s first impression of the town was of calm and ordinary urban bustle, but closer inspection revealed strain and the shadows of uncertainty and fear. It didn’t do his jitters much good when Ancelotis commented, Aye, they’re afraid, and with good reason. Two kings newly slain and the Saxons knocking at their doors. Think you we Britons are immune to such emotions, for all that we’re certain of the Afterlife? A man may accept a promissory note from a debtor to collect payment in the Afterlife, but that hardly means we welcome the transition with arms thrown wide.

Stirling couldn’t find a single response to that astonishing piece of information and decided it was probably best if he didn’t try. Their destination, a large villa which lay perhaps a dozen meters beyond the fortress and its multi-layered rings of defensive barriers, had doubtless served as residence for the commander of the Sixth Legion and his family, if not as the main residence of the client kings of Rheged. The inhabitants had probably evacuated to the fort for safety—along with the rest of the town—during times of trouble. Whether the villa had been kept up by the kings of Rheged or refurbished by Ambrosius Aurelianus and his protege Artorius was difficult to decide, just by looking at the outside.

For the most part, it was as plain and utilitarian as any other Roman house in the sprawling, once-great Roman empire, its coat of whitewash faded from exposure to years of Scottish weather. The sandstone roof had been maintained in excellent repair, greeting the strengthening light of morning with a rosy red glow, the cheeriest sight Stirling had yet seen. The entrance, invisible during the night, was its most stunning feature, with a triangular pediment resting on no fewer than six immense sandstone columns, fluted gracefully. The entrance lay at the end of a flagstone path bordered by statuary and formal flower beds, which separated the villa from the commonplace bustle and mud of the street.

A servant, one of the burliest roustabouts Stirling had ever seen, who fairly bristled with weaponry and stiff-necked military pride, held the door. Stirling expected to find the interior as faded as the outside, perhaps because every Roman villa he’d ever seen, in pictures or on the telly, wore a melancholy air of ancient glory gone dim, a ghost dissolving into the light of dawn. But when he stepped into the vestibule, his jaw dropped.

Frescoes in a beautiful, deep red covered the walls, highlighted with golden birds frolicking amongst painted fountains. Beyond the vestibule lay an atrium, with its marble basin for catching rainwater, its frescoes bright and fresh, depicting deities, pastoral scenes, and architectural elements. And beyond the atrium, through open doors that could, at the owners’ whim, be closed for privacy, was a stunning colonnaded reception hall, reminding him strikingly of the Fishbourne Roman Palace, but on a smaller scale.

The entire villa was an archeological treasure trove. These two rooms alone were. He moved forward through the atrium and reception hall with a sense of awe, glad of his soft-soled boots, for even a clicking footfall would have been sacrilegious in such rooms. The marble basin of the atrium pool glinted like quicksilver where sunlight struck the grey stone through a shimmer of clear water. The colonnaded hall was the backdrop for bronze statues on marble pedestals and a breathtaking fountain in the center of the floor. Water splashed softly in the hush, catching sunlight in brilliant sparkles, obviously fed by the aqueduct outside.

The villa’s mosaic floors might have been laid yesterday, they were so immaculately maintained; they caught the eye with complex patterns, depicting the wildlife of the Scottish border counties—deer with liquid eyes, hares and songbirds, snarling Scottish wildcats, blood-red foxes, and leaping silver fish, in groups of three paying homage to a divine huntress and a horned god at the very center. Celtic triskelions, sunwheels, and intricate knotwork borders ran along the edges. The fusion of Celtic sacred images with the Roman medium of expression—thousands of tiny, colored tiles laid with loving precision—created a breathtaking hybrid art form.

Ancelotis asked irritably, What is it you’re staring at, man? ‘Tis nothing but a floor and we’ve just as fine at Trapain Law! Even at Caer-Iudeu! It took enormous effort to tear his attention away from what Ancelotis must have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Voices further along drew his footsteps through the hall and out into a peristyle garden, where more fountains danced in the sunlight and beautifully shaped hedges marked the borders of winding pathways. Again, Stirling was reminded of Fishbourne, with its formal gardens that led awed visitors into the private sanctum of Britain’s ruling elite. A barbarian seeking an audience with the king and queen of Rheged would be forced to run this whole, immaculately civilized gauntlet of rooms, altered landscapes, and engineering which shrieked of organized power.

Beyond the garden lay an open, airy chamber that clearly served the kings of Rheged as throne hall, given the presence of two immense chairs, beautifully carved from oak and decorated with writhing, animal-form Celtic knotwork. Silver and gold leaf on the carvings glittered in the sunlight, which fell like a golden river through the open doors leading from the peristyle garden to the throne room. It was here the leading citizens of Caerleul and most of the northern kings and queens had gathered to wait for Cutha and his Saxon escort. The Britons made a colorful splash of movement against the cool elegance of the Roman room.

Queen Morgana stepped into view from the shadows of an adjoining chamber, a slim and pale figure in black, her hair as glossy as a raven’s wing, her eyes shadowed with grief and worry. Gold glinted at her throat and wrists, even her hips, where a delicate girdle of golden links circled her waist. She stood unmoving for a long moment, as icy and silent as a figure carved from basalt. Stirling wished he could find something comforting to say. Ancelotis cleared his throat, also feeling awkward in the face of her grief and the dire political disaster they all faced.

“You bear no ill will, Morgana?”

One corner of her lips twitched. “Ill will, brother of my husband? How should I, when I refused the throne outright when it was offered me? No, you are my first and best choice for Gododdin.” She held out a slim hand and he crossed the mosaics quickly, taking the offered hand and kissing her cheek. “You slept well?” she asked worriedly, gazing into his eyes while her fingers sought the pulse at his wrist.

He quirked his own lips in a faint smile of response. “I did. Perhaps better than I should have done.”

“Exhaustion,” she agreed, “has a way of assisting in such matters.”

A sound of voices reached them and Thaney swept into the room, greeting them both with genuine warmth. “Morgana, Ancelotis, there was so little time last night to greet you properly.” She gave Morgana a hug that spoke eloquently of the younger woman’s feelings. “Please forgive me if I cannot be overly distressed by my father’s death,” she added, peering anxiously into Morgana’s eyes.

“Of course not, child,” Morgana smiled, brushing a wisp of hair back from Thaney’s brow. “Did you think I would not understand? He tried to murder you. Your son is well?”

Thaney broke into a radiant smile. “He is. And you will be so proud of him, Uncle,” she added, turning her attention to Ancelotis. “He rides like the wind and has never taken a fall, although my heart bids fair to choke me when I see him set his mount at some obstacle he is determined to leap.”

Ancelotis chuckled. “As I recall, a certain young girl used to do the same, terrifying the wits out of her uncle when she set her mind to something a strong man would have thought twice of attempting.”

“Fond uncle,” she laughed. “I have missed you.”

“And your laughter has been too long absent from Trapain Law. You will be welcome there, as from now.”

She touched his cheek with a gentle hand. “As from now, I accept the invitation. But first,” and the smile died from her eyes, “we must deal with the Saxons. My husband has gone with Artorius to brief the officers they will dispatch as escort to bring the Saxons into town. They’ve commanded half-a-hundred cataphracti to greet them, to prevent any mischief Cutha might have planned for their arrival.”

“A wise precaution.” Morgana nodded gravely.

Artorius, wearing chain-mail armor over a fine tunic and gripping the hilt of his sword, strode into the throne room at that very moment, arriving from the peristyle gardens. His choice of armor, Stirling realized abruptly, was a calculated insult to the Saxons: Your visit is supremely unimportant, was the message that ordinary mail conveyed. So unimportant, I won’t even bother to wear my cuirass and battle-dress armor. He paced restively across the mosaics, looking like he hadn’t slept for even five minutes, and said tersely, “They’re in sight at the edge of town. Meirchion will join us momentarily, for it would not do to give Cutha the impression that we will ride placatingly to meet him, like some trembling virgin bride awaiting her doom.”

Ancelotis nodded agreement at the wisdom of that decision.

Young King Clinoch of Strathclyde, pale and silent in his finery, entered the hall, fingers white on the pommel of his own sword, which he gripped the way a younger child might have clutched at a stuffed toy. The boy wore the look of the exhaustion which comes from prolonged stress and chronic lack of sleep. Emrys Myrddin strode into view, querulous blue eyes raking the room with a narrow gaze. He stalked over to Clinoch, speaking to him in a low voice that did not carry. A group of minstrels drifted into the room, touching fingertips to harps and lips to flutes, playing a soft melody that helped soothe Stirling’s on-edge nerves. Ancelotis frowned slightly, however, catching sight of one of them.

What? Stirling asked, puzzled.

That fellow in the corner there.

Stirling frowned until he’d spotted the man Ancelotis meant, an eerie experience as Ancelotis moved his eyeballs without Stirling’s consenting volition, to center their shared gaze on the individual in question. What about him? Stirling asked.

I had not thought to see him in Caerleul. He was in Caer-Iudeu the day my brother died. He wandered into town a couple of weeks ago, made himself popular with the men of the cataphracti. He made excellent time, to arrive here at the same time as we did, moving by forced march.

Who is he? Stirling asked curiously.

Lailoken, he’s called. A minstrel of modest fame, travels from kingdom to kingdom. Has rather a flair for the comical, although I dare say there’s little enough to laugh at, these days, and even less, this past week. I wonder how long he’s been in Caerleul?

Stirling frowned. If he was in Stirling—er, Caer-Iudeu—the day your brother died, he made damned good time on the road. He must have a fast horse.

If he does, Ancelotis replied, he won it gambling with the soldiers, for he came to Caer-Iudeu on foot. ‘Tis the reason I was so surprised to see him here.

Before Stirling could respond, Ganhumara swept into the room. Arrayed in all her finery, which included a flame-colored silk overdress and a great deal of gold, she looked like a well-fed vixen, with her coppery tresses swept up into an elegant, patrician style full of ringlets and wispy tendrils. Her stunning beauty hit Stirling like a fist in the gut, but the opulence of her appearance on this particular morning jarred with a deep sense of impropriety. At the very least, her blazing finery betrayed a certain callous disregard of Morgana and Clinoch’s grief.

Ganhumara darted occasional glances toward Morgana, secretive little glances Stirling couldn’t interpret, but she looked more frequently toward the young king of Strathclyde. She and Clinoch were nearly matched in age. Doubtless she and the young men of Clinoch’s generation shared more in common with one another than with anyone else in their immediate society or this room. Stirling found himself wondering whom Clinoch would marry. For that matter, he wondered whom Medraut would marry and fell to wondering where the lad was, surprised he had not yet put in an appearance. Covianna Nim slipped quietly into the room and swayed her way across the atrium floor to murmur something low in Emrys Myrddin’s ear, laughing softly and slipping her arm through his.

Old men will be fools, Ancelotis snorted silently, observing the interchange between Myrddin and his much younger acolyte. And there’s another trouble we could have done without, Ancelotis added sourly, watching Ganhumara insinuate herself into Clinoch’s company. The matter of Clinoch’s betrothal and marriage.Clan chieftains and kings from Dalriada to Cornwall will try to foist their awkward daughters on the lad. The Saxons and the Irish would both pay handsomely for the opportunity to marry into the royal house of Strathclyde and claim its throne legitimately. And Ganhumara will be even more trouble, for all that she’s married to Artorius.

A young boy dressed as a servant burst through the doors from the peristyle garden, gasping, “They’re here! The Saxons are here!”

Clinoch went another shade whiter, which Stirling wouldn’t have believed possible, then the boy crossed the mosaics quickly to stand beside Rheged’s queen. Morgana moved to Clinoch’s side, giving Ganhumara a hard, cold look until the younger queen moved away, clearly piqued and not caring to instigate a public scene. Thaney seated herself in the throne farthest from the door as Stirling wondered silently, Where’s Rheged’s king? He was unsure where he should stand and opted to stay where he was, near the entryway from the garden.

Meirchion is doubtless up to his usual tricks, I should imagine, Ancelotis replied. Thaney picked a crafty one, when she defied Lot Luwddoc’s will. Ancelotis didn’t dispute Stirling’s choice of vantage points near the door, either, although the king of Gododdin did wrap one hand around the pommel of his sword, a seemingly casual stance betrayed by the tension Stirling could feel in their shared grip. A moment later, the Saxons brushed arrogantly past the servants who held the doors leading from the colonnaded hall out to the peristyle garden.

It didn’t take much guesswork to spot Cutha. He was younger than the men of his escort, a cocksure mid-twenties at most, heavy boned and taller than anyone save Emrys Myrddin. Young Clinoch looked like the child he was, by comparison. Long blond hair and a square-cut, Germanic face marked Cutha as the Teutonic prince he claimed to be. Cold blue eyes glittered like chips of ice. Muscles bunched along his jaw spoke of a certain level of discomfort. A barbarian’s response, no doubt, to that long walk through rooms calculated to flaunt wealth and power, all the while under the watchful, hostile eyes of servants, courtiers, soldiers, even the Roman statues that stood like sentinels, glaring blindly in his direction. Stirling had felt the effect himself, and he was far less susceptible than an illiterate Saxon soldier would be. Particularly one whose father had won a throne at the point of a sword, rising from obscurity in a land where civilization was something other people possessed and penniless warriors longed to steal for themselves.

Cutha’s dismissive glance at Ancelotis as the Saxon strode through the doorway into the throne room sent the hairs on the nape of Stirling’s neck bristling. Aye, Ancelotis growled silently, a mannerless heathen, well schooled in testing a man’s temper with calculated and subtle insults. The Saxons have made an art form of discourtesy.

Unlike the men of his bodyguard, who wore leather tunics to which iron rings or overlapping metal plates had been sewn, Cutha wore a heavy chain-mail shirt which fell just short of his waist. Cutha’s conical helmet bore a rim of iron around the bottom edge, and two arches of iron met at the crown. The spaces in between sported thick horn plates. An iron boar covered with gold leaf had been welded at the top, strengthening the helmet as well as decorating it. An iron noseguard added to the young man’s fierce appearance. Bindings made from linen sewn to leather wrapped his calves from ankle to knee, fairly useless as greaves, but effective at keeping the bottoms of his trousers from catching on things that might snag or trip him up.

In his wake came another young man, thickset and short and flushed from exertion or nerves or both. Like Cutha, he wore sword and ornately inlaid wooden scabbard through a slit in the side of a mail shirt. Unlike Cutha, who carried a war axe with a surprisingly narrow cutting surface, this second young man wore no other weaponry. The men of their bodyguard wore axes, but not swords, and carried long thrusting spears with ash-wood hafts a good five feet long. The spears ended in bristling iron points. Circular wooden shields with iron-bound rims and cone-shaped bosses at the center, brightly painted in pagan designs, made for a glittering, barbaric display. Cutha’s guards were staring, goggle-eyed, at the display of wealth on every side.

Cutha stalked toward Thaney and the empty throne beside her, allowing a contemptuous glance to slide across Clinoch’s beardless face without even acknowledging the boy’s presence. Clinoch stiffened, but he did not say anything, neither in anger nor in nervous fear. He simply glared at his enemy with a look that promised blood. If Cutha noticed, he gave no outward sign.

“Queen Thaney,” the Saxon said as he halted several paces short of the twin thrones. He sketched a perfunctory bow which was nearly as insulting as his tone. “I would speak with your husband on important matters that touch your kingdom.”

Thaney, cool as a winter sky, didn’t even bother to return the insulting bow, not even inclining her head in greeting. “You will speak your business with me, if you seek to discuss Rheged’s business. Unlike your Saxon sows, Briton queens are fully capable of ruling. Particularly when mere Saxons come calling.”

Cutha flushed a dull red against the blond hair which stirred in the cold breeze drifting in through the peristyle garden’s open doors. Behind him, Prince Creoda of Wessex, a Briton traitor Ancelotis would have spat on were they in Gododdin, paled so disastrously, Stirling wondered that he didn’t keel over on the spot.

Thaney, eyes cold and voice chilly, asked, “What is your business in our kingdom, Saxon? Why have you demanded a place in Rheged’s council, as though you were Briton born, not an invader with pretensions to royal blood?” Her glance raked Creoda, tarring him with the same brush. The insult scored blood with Creoda, at least, whose face darkened in a flush of anger and embarrassment.

Cutha’s mouth twitched in feigned—or perhaps real—amusement. “Alliance, Queen Thaney. Profitable alliance against mutual enemies.”

What mutual enemies? Stirling wanted to ask.

Echoing Stirling’s thoughts, a new voice asked in a slow, amused drawl, “What mutual enemies might those be, Saxon?”

Cutha slewed around and Prince Creoda actually stumbled in his haste to take himself out of Cutha’s way. King Meirchion Gul had appeared from the garden, balanced lightly on the balls of both feet, eyes glittering as he swept a contemptuous glance across Cutha’s men. Cutha regained his composure with difficulty as Meirchion Gul sauntered lazily forward, nodding toward Artorius as he took the high-backed throne next to his wife. “What enemies?” he repeated, crossing his legs at the ankles and giving Cutha a slow, infuriatingly dismissive smile.

The Saxon narrowed his eyes. “Angles,” he spat out. “Angles from Frisia, and Jutland Danes. They land by the shipload between our Saxon kingdoms of Sussex, Kent, and Wessex, and your strongholds of the midlands and the north, challenging and harassing our power, laying waste to farms and villages alike, killing and plundering. If we do not act to crush these brigands, they will grow so bold, there will be no stopping them.” Cutha’s smile deepened nastily. “But alliance between the Saxon kings and the kings of the Britons would crush our enemies between two strong armies and give further raiders pause when looking to these shores for plunder.”

And leave the Britons understrength, Stirling thought darkly. It would also put Saxon armies deep in the heart of Briton territory, able to strike at will in any direction, catching off guard any Britons fool enough to make alliance. It had almost worked for Hitler, making a pact with the Soviet Union long enough to rape Eastern Europe, then striking at the Russian heartland in a surprise betrayal.

Only the bitter Russian winter had stopped Hitler’s plan, as harsh winter weather had stopped Napoleon a century previously—and there was not a finger’s length of ground anywhere in the British Isles with winters bitter enough to do the same for the Britons. With the interposing Angles and Jutes out of harm’s way, there would be little to stop Wessex and Sussex from expanding to fill the entire island.

King Meirchion answered Cutha with a scornful drawl, gazing up from under hooded eyes. “We will, of course, give your offer the full consideration it deserves. But we will make no such decisions for the next seven-day. Mayhap you have not heard, but we Britons honor royal dead this day. The kings of Gododdin and Strathclyde have joined their ancestors and we will spend the coming week honoring their memory. The heirs of Gododdin and Strathclyde have joined us this morning,” he added, “as have the queens of Galwyddel, Ynys Manaw, and Caer-Guendoleu, by chance here on other business. You are welcome, of course, to participate in the funerary games while you wait for our holy observances to end.”

Funerary games? Stirling wondered, even as Cutha’s eyes widened in a moment of unguarded shock. Prince Creoda’s mouth dropped open. He stared wildly around the room while tugging at Cutha’s sleeve in agitation. When Creoda saw Artorius in the shadows, saw the Dux Bellorum’s smile of grim pleasure, the traitorous young Briton gave a start of pure horror, realizing too late the true nature of what the Saxons had blundered into here. Cutha ignored Creoda utterly, narrowing his eyes in swift recognition that the boundaries of his game had just shifted, perhaps dramatically. “My sorrow for your sorrows, King of Rheged.”

“We thank you for your concern,” Meirchion Gul replied with fine irony.

Cutha bowed slightly. “I am not familiar with your customs. What funerary games are these you speak of?”

Morgana stepped forward with quiet authority. “They do honor to my husband’s departed spirit, and to King Dumgual Hen’s, as well,” she said with a chilly look, “and give their spirits a glimpse of the pleasures awaiting them in the Otherworld. They will dwell in the Otherworld with the Christ as warriors in God’s army and will fight against the Great Deceiver and all the powers of darkness. We will honor their bravery in this world, as well as the battles they will fight at God’s side. We celebrate their birth into the Otherworld with feasting and contests of strength and skill and speed, wrestling and races on foot and horseback, prowess with weapons. Warriors will fight to the glory of their memories, and horses and dogs will be sacrificed to journey with them to the Christ’s eternal kingdom.”

“Games well worthy of any king,” Cutha murmured. “Where are these heirs you speak of, Meirchion of Rheged?” he asked, glancing away from Morgana as though she had ceased to exist.

Clinoch stepped forward, flushed with anger. “I am Strathclyde’s heir, Saxon! King Clinoch ap Dumgual Hen.” The boy shot a lethal stare at Creoda, who gulped nervously, then snapped at Cutha, “Why do you ask?”

“Why, to discover who my new allies will be.” His glance slid unpleasantly across Clinoch’s slim, boyish frame. “I would honor your father, as well, Clinoch ap Dumgual Hen. Many times have I matched swords with a man in ritual combat. It would please me to match strength and skills with Strathclyde’s new king.”

Even as Stirling snarled under his breath, Ancelotis tightened his grip on the pommel of the sword under their shared hand and strode forward. “With all apologies to King Clinoch and no insult intended to his good name,” Ancelotis growled, “I would prefer that Gododdin gave you the opportunity you seek.” Cutha slewed around, taken off guard a second time and clearly infuriated by it. Ancelotis added, with an apologetic glance toward Clinoch, “Gododdin’s king died before Dumgual Hen was killed, giving Gododdin the right of first challenge and response. I would gladly show Saxons how we honor a fallen Briton king.”

Cutha glared at Stirling. “And who are you, to issue such a challenge?”

“Ancelotis, King of Gododdin. I’ll meet you on the field, Saxon. Unless, of course, it is the habit in Sussex to fight only beardless boys and women?”

Creoda gasped. King Meirchion toyed almost idly with the hilt of his dagger while watching Cutha through narrowed eyes. Young Clinoch gulped, looking both insulted and relieved to have escaped the challenge.

Cutha snarled, “I will meet you on any field you choose! Name the time and place.”

“On the final day of the funerary games, Cutha of Sussex. I will meet you then with sword and lance on horseback and finish you on foot when I’ve unhorsed you. Match me, if you can.”

Cutha’s mouth twitched. “Talk is cheap. I accept your challenge with pleasure.”

“Done.”

Emrys Myrddin stepped forward from the shadows. “Until then, you would do well to remember that this villa is in mourning, for King Lot Luwddoc of Gododdin was Queen Thaney’s father. Take your men and retire until summoned to the field, if you have any respect for civilized customs. An escort will show you the way to your quarters. And take the dregs of Wessex with you. Traitors are not welcome in the councils of Briton kings.”

Creoda flushed and gulped nervously and would not meet Emrys Myrddin’s eye. As the Saxons stalked out into the clear sunlight of early morning, Stirling resisted the urge to wipe sweat off his brow, mostly because his trembling hand would have betrayed him. What in God’s name had he signed up for, fighting a sixth-century duel with weapons he scarcely knew how to use? Oh, for one lowly handgun and a bottomless supply of cartridges…

Artorius broke the tense silence. “We have bought a little time, at least,” he said quietly. “We must watch him day and night, lest he send a courier to Sussex with word to strike while we are in disarray. If such an attempt is made,” he added in a voice like a steel rasp, “we kill the courier. No warning, no mercy. Cutha will not get a message out to his father.”

Ruthless, thoroughly dangerous…

Exactly what the Britons needed.

Stirling thanked God he did not face Artorius as enemy.

* * *

Lailoken hummed contentedly under his breath as he strolled through the crowded, muddy streets of Caerleul, carrying a heavy sailcloth bag over one shoulder and jostling elbows with the largest group of people he had ever seen in one place. Soldiers in armor haggled over the prices of knives made by the secretive island smiths of Ynys Manaw and Glastenning Tor, which lay many days’ journey to the south. Shrieking children darted nimbly through the crowds with the quicksilver lightning of schooling fish.

Gold-torqued royalty strolled in their silks and long woolen robes with ermine trim, with exquisite cloaks stitched from wild mink pelts or ruinously expensive, imported black sable—the coveted favorite of northern queens during the harsh northern winters. Other cloaks had been made from shining silver fox furs that caught the light like a full moon over snow. Kings and queens, arrogant young princelings and their elegant, fine-boned sisters strolled serenely along in self-absorbed groupings of two and three, even as many as five at once, a sight Lailoken had never seen in his life.

He had never before been able to reach Caerleul in time for the councils of kings held in the ancient Sixth Legionary Fortress. The influx of royalty summoned to Caerleul by the Dux Bellorum and the soldiers and tradesmen who followed them, had jammed into every available inn, taverna, private house, barracks room, stable, privy, and hog lot within half an hour’s ride of Caerleul’s walls. It was a rare thing, indeed, to celebrate the rebirths into the Otherworld of two Briton kings at once and the merchants were making the best of it.

Native townspeople hawked fine needlework and hand-dipped beeswax candles scented with herbs stirred into the heated wax—far cleaner to burn than smoky, smouldering tallow and a far steadier light, for those who wished to sew or read by candlelight. There were beautifully carved chairs, platters, and bowls with a knobbly, gnarled texture, cut from the burls that disfigured many a tree in the forested hills. Jewelers displayed cloak pins, ear bobs, necklaces and bracelets and animal-motif brooches, their patterns twisting and curling back on themselves. Belt buckles as ornate as the brooches were displayed next to ladies’ waist-clasping girdles with delicate links of silver or shining, sunny gold.

Farmers in from the countryside, having culled their herds in preparation for the long northern winter, sold their surplus of newly slaughtered smoked and salted meats, alongside freshly plucked and roasted chickens and ducks, all of which sent mouth-watering aromas spilling into the streets. The farmers jockeyed for the best positions at the open-air markets, squeezing in cheek-by-jowl next to fishermen with their reeking barrows and baskets crammed full of gleaming, silvery blind-eyed fish, mussels and cockles, scallops, shrimp, and freshwater oysters and eels, just pulled from the sea or scoured from every lake bottom for miles around.

The fish drew appreciative and thieving attention from the town’s population of half-feral cats and hungry dogs, as well, looking for a free meal while the tantalizing smells of fresh-baked breads, jellied fruits, slabs of cheese coated with thin layers of protective beeswax, and wreaths of dried onions and garlic cloves mingled with the other scents of abundance Lailoken mourned the inability to share.

Tradesmen’s daughters in pretty lace caps, their dainty white stockings peeping out from under tucked-up skirts, laughed and chatted gaily, calling out to townsmen they knew and attracting everything male within ogling range. The girls set out finely made wares, some of them imported at great cost and danger and all of them to be had at premium prices—but made to seem a bargain when sold by those dewy-eyed, well-endowed maidens. Lailoken returned a few sinful smiles without stopping, ducked into a narrow side street where small boys were playing a tag and fetch game with enthusiastic puppies, and unlocked the door to the room he had rented just a few hours before Artorius had summoned the bedlam through which he and his secret companion, Banning, had just walked.

Lailoken shifted the heavy sailcloth bag to the floor, loosened the neck, and lifted out bottle after bottle to be set in rows on his new worktable. He had acquired the table cheaply from an inn which had suffered the effects of several hundred cavalrymen arriving from kingdoms scattered all across the British Isles, acting as guard escorts for the royalty. He made sure the firewood he used to prop up the broken table leg was securely in place, leveling the surface, then started setting out glass and rough-fired clay bottles and jugs. He’d been forced to scour the surrounding villages and several trash middens, just to find as many as Banning wanted, but this morning’s trip had finally garnered enough to do a proper job of it and the work was well under way.

Into each bottle or jug, he spooned chunks of boiled beef, stewed vegetables, and several spoonfuls of dirt, mixing the earth liberally with the food. He capped them with a stopper of wax, which he further secured against expansion of gasses—something invisible which Banning insisted would be created by some alchemical process Lailoken didn’t understand in the slightest—by tying thin cords around them, mouths to bottoms, several snug twists each. He didn’t understand why he was to do all of this, other than it would somehow magically produce a potent poison, their means of vengeance against the Irish. More potent, Banning assured him, than even witch’s bane, which had been used to poison wells in the face of advancing armies.

Filling Banning’s bottles took relatively little of his time each day, so Lailoken carried out a number of other tasks as well, borrowing a horse from one of his new minstrel companions and riding out to meet Queen Morgana at the time they had arranged. On the day of Cutha’s arrival, they met near dusk in a grove of crimson oaks along the Roman road leading north. The grove sheltered a little stone shrine that was doubtless older than Christ, from the look of its carvings. The wind had lifted his new cloak and Morgana’s long, unbound hair, fine tendrils of which blew across her face like strands of silk. She had not dismounted from her saddle, waiting for him on horseback, along with a young boy who could scarcely claim manhood, he was still so young.

“Lailoken,” she greeted him quietly, “my nephew, Medraut. Nephew, this minstrel proposes to help you to a wife.”

Medraut gazed at him with guileless, curious eyes. “Then we are well met.”

“It is my pleasure to serve Britain. When shall I leave, Queen Morgana, for the north?”

She considered for a moment. “Not until the High Council of Kings has met at week’s end. I will be traveling home to Galwyddel then, and will take Medraut with me, to meet our proposed allies to discuss terms of marriage.”

“And what token might I give the king of Dalriada as evidence of good faith?”

She lifted one hand, on which glittered a large gold ring. “My signet, with Galwyddel’s royal seal. I will loan it to you the day you travel north to arrange the meeting, along with the precise message you are to carry.”

He nodded, satisfied. “And where, precisely, shall I bid the king of Dalriada to meet you?”

“Along the coast, at the Lochmaben Stone Circle. Do you know the place? On the northern shore of Solway Firth, not far south of Caer-Gretna.”

“Yes, I know it,” Banning said smoothly when Lailoken hesitated. “A fitting trysting place for a marriage of alliance,” he added with a smile. Indeed, as an ancient shrine dedicated to Maponos, god of youth and music, Lochmaben was still famous in the twenty-first century for hastily concluded marriages between runaway lovers. And if Banning’s memory served, it had also served—for several centuries running—as the spot where border disputes were settled. “I cannot imagine a more perfect spot.”

She lifted a brow. “Indeed? So long as you can find it without difficulty, I will be satisfied. Do this quietly and you will never lack for a home or money. Cross me,” she added, eyes glittering like ice chips struck from a glacier, “and you will discover just how intense my displeasure can be.”

His borrowed mount, picking up Lailoken’s abrupt surge of nervousness, shook its head and mouthed the bit. When the animal pawed restively at the ground, Lailoken booted him under the shoulder with a toe, eliciting a snort and an unhappy shifting of weight. Banning, speaking smoothly over Lailoken’s discomfort, assured her, “I have only the interests of Britain at heart.

“See to it that remains so. Meet me here again the morning after the High Council of Kings. We’ll ride together to Caer-Birrenswark, for there is safety in numbers. From there, you will continue on to the coast and travel north by water.”

Medraut glanced curiously at his aunt. “Why by water?”

Her glanced softened. “Because,” she said gently, “a man riding north by horseback must pass the Antonine Wall. Our border guards allow no Briton north of the mile forts, just as they allow no Pict or Irishman south. Not without meeting heavy resistance.” She pursed her lips, studying Lailoken. “You should pose as a trader. Yes, I think that would be best, to reduce Dalriadan suspicions. A British bard might think twice about sailing into Dalriadan waters, but traders eager for profit will sell to anyone with the coinage—including an Irish clan chieftain who has proclaimed himself king. Return by water, as well, when you bring our proposed allies to Lochmaben.”

“When shall we meet?”

She considered the question for a moment. “On the night of the next full moon, I think. That will give you time enough to travel both ways. Find me there at moonrise. Take this now,” she pulled a small leather bag from under her cloak. “You will have expenses to bear before leaving Caerleul, for a man who poses as a trader must have something to trade—and a pack animal to carry it. I leave the details—and much else—to your discretion.”

Lailoken accepted a small purse heavy with gold, exulting in his good fortune. Once back in town, he bought a fine riding horse, two sturdy pack horses, a variety of baubles such as women coveted for their necks and wrists, fine woolen gowns and kidskin slippers for delicate feet, several bottles of excellent wine imported from Rome itself, and a bale of hay to cinch down over the sets of panniers he bought for the pack animals, baskets which would carry the trade goods near the top, as a screen for the more lethal cargo carefully cushioned beneath.

With Morgana’s gold, he had no need to gamble for money, as Banning had originally intended. He still picked up the odd coin playing as a minstrel, of course, and spent many pleasant hours at the town’s sandstone racing and gladiatorial arena, watching the games and cheering the crowd’s favorites to victory. Banning, in particular, was fascinated with the arena and the games.

‘Tis a grand arena, Banning said the first time they entered the immense structure which stood like a red sandstone battleship at the edge of town. It’s completely unknown in my own time. Doubtless the poor dismantled it for building materials, over the centuries, Banning mused, more’s the pity. It boasted an outer, one-story colonnade of the same red sandstone as the legionary fortress. One end was gracefully rounded, typical of raceways from one end of history to the other, but the opposite end had been squared off, giving the outer portico a truncated, clumsy look, like an elongated horseshoe with a blunt, square wall closing off the opening.

This puzzled Banning until they passed through one of the arched entrances cut into the portico. Sandstone starting gates had been built right through the squared-off end, a series of wide arches which formed stone chambers giving access to the track. A red sandstone balcony capped the starting boxes, roofed over to shelter officials who moved with a colorful flutter of woolen plaids stirred by the wind. A wooden machine something like the wheel of a sailing ship evidently controlled the heavy wooden doors of each racing stall. At the moment, these doors stood open, giving Lailoken and Banning a clear view of the open space beyond the back of the starting boxes. Runners and wrestlers stood waiting for the end of the foot race currently under way.

What startled Banning most of all was the seating. Unlike other Roman-era arenas he’d seen, which boasted tiers of stone seats, Caerleul’s outer colonnade enclosed multiple ranks of tall wooden bleachers, the highest tiers of which rose some twenty feet above the sandstone parapet. The bleachers gave the arena an incongruous look, reminiscent of a small-town cricket or soccer field—games Lailoken didn’t understand, even when Banning attempted to explain the rules.

Cricket’s a bloody marvelous game, if you’d brains enough to learn it, Banning finally said in peevish ill temper. Now shut up and let me watch your idea of sport. Fortunately for Lailoken, who was coming to dread Banning’s anger, his unseen guest enjoyed the barbaric splendor of the funerary games even more than Lailoken did. And so the week passed, very pleasantly indeed, with money in his pouch, games to entertain him, and lively music each night, with plenty of good wine to wet his throat. Even better, as one of the minstrels favored by the royal house of Rheged, he had access to the royal villa and the Dux Bellorum’s councils virtually any time he wanted it. For the first time in his life, Lailoken had every luxury he wanted or needed within reach.

All that remained now was the waiting.

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